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symphony no. 8

COMPOSED 26 August - 8 November 1889
PREMIERE - DATE AND PLACE 2 February 1890, Prague
PREMIERE - PERFORMER(S) National Theatre Orchestra, conductor Antonin Dvorak
FIRST EDITION Novello, Ewer & Co., 1892, London
MAIN KEY G major
INSTRUMENTATION 1 piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns,
2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, violins, violas, cellos, double basses
1. Allegro con brio
2. Adagio
3. Allegretto grazioso
4. Allegro ma non troppo
DURATION approx. 36 min.

general characteristics

After the crisis of the mid-1880s, represented above all by the sombre Seventh Symphony and the Piano Trio in F minor, the period during which Dvorak produced his Eighth Symphony was now a time of equilibrium, when the composer sought the answers to fundamental issues of human existence. The work was written during the summer and early autumn of 1889, mainly at his summer residence in Vysoka. This environment, in which Dvorak was most at ease, seemed to be reflected in the overall atmosphere of his new symphony. Here he created a work filled with the joys of life and his admiration for natural beauty and, once again, the piece reveals the composer’s fondness for Czech and Slavonic folk music. Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 is characteristic for its variable moods, which follow one another in a colourful sequence of pastoral images, then dance and march temperaments, and finally passages of heightened drama. In terms of its thematic material, the work is marked by a cantabile style whose clear-cut contours and largely diatonic progressions are more typical of a vocal, rather than instrumental, type of melody.

   sketch for the symphony 

 score of the 1st movement

formal structure and content

Even though, in rough outline, Dvorak adheres to the structure of the classical symphony (four movements, established tempos), the work is surprising for its numerous innovations. The composer himself had expressed his intention to treat the thematic material in a different way, avoiding the “usual, universally applied and recognised forms”. And this we notice right at the start, with the slow introduction to the first movement, which is repeated practically unaltered at the beginning of each section – exposition, development and recapitulation (we will find a similar principle in the opening movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C minor, “Pathetique”). The elegiac theme rendered in the cellos, which might be seen as some kind of paean to nature, contrary to the symphony’s given key begins in G minor, only to journey through the keys of E flat major and A flat major before finally arriving in the principal key of G major at the close of its seventeen-bar period. The first movement is essentially structured around a general sonata-form framework, but one cannot state unequivocally which of the themes is the “first subject”, which is the “second subject” and so on; it would be more appropriate in this case to speak in terms of the “realm of the main theme”, or similar.

The second movement, marked Adagio, is probably the most variable slow movement in Dvorak’s symphonic oeuvre: it brings a veritable kaleidoscope of contrasting moods and is striking for its rich instrumental imagery. Formally, it might be termed a kind of free rondo with the scheme A - B - A' - C - B' - A'. The scherzo movement comprises a main section of lightly melancholic music, waltz-like in nature; the melody of the middle section is surprisingly derived from Dvorak’s one-act comic opera The Stubborn Lovers, written fifteen years earlier, specifically from Tonik’s aria “Such youth in a girl, such dotage in a man”. A resounding trumpet fanfare announces the final movement of the symphony. The melodic profile of the third and fourth bars already anticipates the main theme which later passes through all manner of variations. With its combination of sonata form and variational principles, the entire movement comes close to the finale of Beethoven’s Eroica. 

first edition

The history of the work is also associated with signs of strained relations between the composer and his “preferred” publisher, Simrock, who ultimately did not publish the work, since negotiations broke down after the two failed to agree over the amount. For some time the publisher had criticised Dvorak for producing works that were too ambitious and were thus less profitable in print, and he urged the composer to write shorter works instead. Dvorak refused to do this, stating that his artistic aspirations could not be satisfied merely by producing brief, occasional pieces. Their prickly exchange of views ended with a suspension of business relations for a period of three years and Dvorak published his eighth symphony with the London-based firm Novello (hence the symphony’s occasional subtitle “English”).

title page of the score

premiere and subsequent performances

The Eighth Symphony was performed for the first time in Prague’s Rudolfinum on 2 February 1890 at one of the Popular Concerts organised by the artists’ association Umelecka beseda. Dvorak conducted the work himself, as he did its British premiere, which was performed in London on 24 April of that same year at a concert hosted by the Philharmonic Society in St. James’s Hall. The symphony was a resounding success, in the eyes of both the public and the critics. Dvorak was portrayed in the British press as the only living composer who could rightfully be named as Beethoven’s successor: “Dvorak alone – though he, too, like Brahms, has sought to keep to the Beethoven school – has been able to bring a distinctly new element into the symphony”. Dvorak described his experiences of the concert to his friend, Vaclav Juda Novotny: “The concert came off wonderfully, perhaps more so than at any time in the past. After the first movement there was universal applause, after the second it was even louder, after the third it was so thunderous that I had to turn round several times and thank the audience, but, after the finale, the applause was tempestuous – from the audience in the auditorium, in the galleries, from the orchestra itself, and from the people sitting behind it by the organ – they all clapped so hard, it was almost unbearable. I was called back to the concert podium several times – in short, it was all so wonderful and sincere, just like it is at premieres at home in Prague. I am delighted and thank God that it turned out so well!” Dvorak conducted the symphony several times after that: in Frankfurt on 7 November 1890 (first performance in the German-speaking world), in Cambridge on 15 June 1891, when he received an honorary degree from the city’s university, on 12 August 1893 as part of the event “Czech Day”, organised during the World Fair in Chicago, and once again in London on 19 March 1896. Vienna concert audiences were able to hear the work thanks to the vigorous efforts of tireless promoter of Dvorak’s music, conductor Hans Richter, who included the symphony in a programme for a Vienna Philharmonic concert on 4 January 1891. Richter immediately informed Dvorak of the success of the Viennese premiere: “You would certainly have been thrilled by this performance. We all feel that this is a superb work, and that is why we were all so enthusiastic about it. The triumph was both fervent and heartfelt.

period press review

Eduard Hanslick in Neue Freie Presse, 6 January 1891:

“As the last work on the programme, the symphony may have been placed in the most perilous position, but it triumphed with the purest of resources. While this composition is, from start to finish, undeniably the work of Dvorak, it differs considerably from both his previous symphonies now familiar in Vienna [...] This entire work, one of Dvorak’s best, is laudable for the fact that it is not pedantic yet, despite its composure, it is also far removed from naturalism. Dvorak is a serious artist who has learned much but, despite his knowledge, he has not sacrificed spontaneity and freshness. His works give voice to a singular individual, who emanates a refreshing breath of innovation and originality.”